by Starsky Hutch 76
The long-nosed, bespectacled man flipped through the paper, stopping at the sight of a guest entering his home. “My apologies. I did not see you standing there. Welcome to the House of Mystery.” He rose to his feet and bowed. “I am your host, Cain.
“As you arrived, I was just flipping through the personal ads,” he said, holding up the newspaper. “So many lonely individuals. So many desperate to find that special someone. So very sad. It reminds me of a story I once heard, of a woman who, like these people, was trying to find that special someone. But, like a song once said, she was looking for love in all the wrong places.”
The young woman ran through the dark house, sensing with every step that he was getting closer. She could hear the horrible sound of his talons scraping across the hardwood floor as he lumbered after her. Her hot tears ran down her face, and she felt her breathing becoming staggered. She desperately wanted to think herself out of this, but her fear was overwhelming her, and she found it hard to think straight. She didn’t know her way around this old house, and he did. Suddenly, she found herself trapped when the hallway came to a dead end.
She turned around, ready to run the opposite way and found herself face to face with the misshapen horror. “No! Please!” she sobbed. “Please let me go!”
His hand shot forward and impaled her upon his long, talon-like claws. The pain was so great that she felt herself coming close to passing out. As she tried to scream, blood bubbled forth from her throat. The last thing she saw before she lost consciousness was his wide mouth filled with shark-like rows of teeth as he lifted her up with his claws to satiate his hunger.
Anna woke up screaming in a cold sweat. She couldn’t remember when she’d last had such a horribly violent nightmare. What could have made her have such a dream? She hated horror movies. Any kind of violence was repugnant to her, so why would she dream something like this? She was still shaking from it.
She looked at the empty place in the bed next to her and wished there was somebody there to hold her and tell her everything was going to be all right. She was thirty years old and terrified of becoming an old maid. All her sisters were already married. So now, whenever she went home to visit, her mother would pester her about finding a husband and giving her some grandchildren. It made her hate the holidays. Why couldn’t she realize how much talking that way hurt her? As if she was alone by choice.
Anna walked over to her dresser for a cigarette to calm her nerves. It was painfully obvious that she wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep, so she decided to get ready for work, even though she didn’t have to be at the coffee shop for another three hours. She pulled off her flannel nightgown as she walked to the bathroom. She looked at herself in the mirror and thought to herself, I’m good looking enough. It wasn’t that she was ugly. She was no model, but she was attractive. Her married sisters weren’t any better-looking than her.
As the warm water of the shower sprayed down on her, the image of the monster from her dream came back into her head and made her shiver. She wondered who the girl in her dream was. The girl wasn’t anyone she had ever met before, and she wasn’t anyone she had ever seen on television, so she couldn’t place her face at all.
She went ahead and clocked in early to work after trying to kill as much time as she could. Being a waitress in a coffee shop wasn’t the best job in the world, but she liked the people she had worked with. They could tell that something was bothering her.
“What’s the matter, sugar?” Emma asked her. Emma was an older lady who had worked there since the shop first opened fifteen years ago. “You look like you’ve been run through the mill.”
“Thanks. I had a bad dream last night, so I didn’t sleep too well.”
“I hate when that happens. When I would have bad dreams, I would wake my Harry up to talk about it,” Emma said, misty-eyed. “God rest his soul, he never got angry with me for waking him up for something silly like that.”
“At least you once had somebody,” Anna said sadly.
“Are you still on about that? Just because your little sister got married before you doesn’t mean you’re never going to get married. People get married later these days. You don’t need to be in any kind of a hurry to get to the altar.”
“I know. I’m just depressed. I can’t help how I feel. I can’t even stay with someone long enough to get close to him.”
“Well, here’s something that should cheer you up. Look who just sat down in my station,” Emma said mischievously. “Why don’t you take this one, and I’ll work yours for a while.”
Anna’s jaw dropped when she saw whom Emma was talking about. He looked like a movie star. He certainly wasn’t the type she had ever expected to see in a place like the one she worked in. He looked far too classy. He was wearing an Armani suit with a turtleneck, and he wore Italian shoes polished to a perfect shine. His thick blond hair was slicked back with mousse, and his features were so perfectly chiseled he could almost be called pretty instead of handsome. It looked as if Michelangelo’s statue of David had put on a suit and decided to drop in for a cup of coffee.
Her knees felt as if they might give out on her. “I can’t do it,” she said hoarsely.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Emma said, pushing her out toward the dining area. “If you don’t go there, you’ll be kicking yourself later.”
Anna walked nervously toward the booth where the stranger was reading a copy of the Wall Street Journal. “C-can I help you?”
He turned his head up slowly from his paper, and his ice-blue eyes met hers. His gaze drifted down to her name-tag, and he said, “A cup of coffee would be great, Anna.”
She went back to the kitchen for his coffee, and Emma came up to her anxiously and said, “Well? What’s he like?”
Anna started fanning herself and said, “My God! He’s so hot! He even has an accent!”
“You’re kidding! What kind of accent?”
“I don’t know, but it was really sexy!” Anna said, grinning.
“Well, what are you waiting for? I saw the way he looked at you!” Emma said, guiding her back to the dining area. “Get back out there before this one gets away.”
Anna didn’t know what she was thinking. He was just a customer — better looking than anyone who’d ever been in before, but still just a customer. He would probably never be back again. Cheesy little coffee shops like hers didn’t look like his style. He was probably just there on a whim.
“Here’s your coffee, sir. Anything else I can get for you?” she said, setting the coffee cup in front of him.
“Just the coffee will be fine,” he said, smiling at her. “But I could use some company. If it won’t get you in trouble with your boss, I would be honored if you were to join me at my table.”
“I… I can’t.” She looked back toward the kitchen at Emma, who was mouthing Are you crazy? Sit down with him. Since Emma was the one in charge until the manager came in later, she had no excuse not to. “Well, OK. Just for a little while.”
“I couldn’t be happier,” he said as she sat down. He took her hand and said, “My name is Damon, Damon Alti. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I hope I didn’t embarrass you by being so forward. I have to confess, I didn’t just come in here for coffee. I saw you pull into the parking lot and knew you were going to go in the back way. So I knew I had to come in here and meet you.”
Anna couldn’t believe her ears. He sounded too good to be true. From the way he talked, he was obviously educated, unlike the men she usually went out with. “You came in here just to meet me?”
“That’s right. I’m glad I did, too. You’re every bit as beautiful up close as you are from a distance. I have to run to the office now, but I never would have forgiven myself if I hadn’t come in to meet you. Look, I know you don’t know me, and you have no reason to say yes, but I would really love it if you would have dinner with me tomorrow night.”
“Well, it just so happens that I’m free tomorrow.”
“That’s great.” He handed her one of his business cards and a pen and got her to write her phone number and address on the back. “So, I’ll call you later on tonight, and we can make plans for dinner.” They said goodbye, and then she ran back to the kitchen to tell Emma the good news.
The next night, he took her to the most expensive restaurant she had ever been to in her life. Seeing the way everyone else was dressed and the way they carried themselves, she felt cheap and inadequate — two words that described Damon Alti in no way, shape, or form. He seemed to be making every attempt to make her feel comfortable and get her to enjoy herself. This made him seem all the more charming in her eyes.
“So,” he said, refilling her wine glass, “tell me about yourself. What’s your family like?”
“Well, I have three sisters: two older and one younger.”
“All girls, huh? Did your father ever try to turn you into tomboys?”
“You know it. He had us all into athletics as soon as we were old enough to walk. As much as he tried, though, he couldn’t turn us into boys. We eventually found interests outside of his. I got interested in dance. It’s what I hope to do for a living someday. Being a waitress is just something I’m doing in the meantime.”
“I should have known you were a dancer,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Dancers have a natural grace. You can see in their every movement. They are like swans among a flock of geese.”
“Well, she said, eyeing him seductively as she took a sip of wine. “If that were the case, one could mistake you for a dancer.”
“I can’t say I was ever a dancer, but I was in gymnastics for a while. I tried out for the Olympic team, but didn’t make the final cut.”
“I’m sorry,” Anna said, placing her hand on top of his.
“There’s no need to be sorry. My father wasn’t. He had been telling me for years that I was wasting my time trying to pursue a career in athletics. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become a businessman. So that’s what I did when gymnastics petered out.”
“You never did tell me what it is that you do.”
“Well, it’s been given the unflattering label of liquidator. I buy out large corporations and then break them down into smaller parts and sell them off.”
“I’ve heard of that,” she said. “It always seemed sort of cruel.”
“Hey, most of these companies would go under without my interference. With my help, at least I’m able to salvage what is left and make everyone a lot of money in the process. Everybody walks away with more than they had before.”
“I never thought of it like that,” she said.
“Remember, there are two sides to everything. We live in a time when a lot of people resent those in my line of work, but we serve a necessary function. In order for the good companies to survive, we have to be there to deal with the bad ones.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult what you do for a living. I really don’t know about things like that. All I know about the business world is what I hear from other people and what they say on television.”
“No offense taken,” he said, smiling. “I don’t know anything about being a dancer, so I’m sure I have a lot of misconceptions about what it is you do. Now, I didn’t come here to talk about work. I came here to find out about you. I propose a toast,” he said, holding up his wine glass, “to the most beautiful girl in the room. And hopefully, my long and happy future with her.”
“That’s a funny thing to say on the first date,” she said, grinning.
“It might be very presumptuous of me, but when I see something I want, I go after it with a great passion. In this case, what I want is you.”
On their second date, Damon invited Anna to his house for dinner. The word house was too mundane to describe it, though. It was a sprawling estate, the sort she had seen on shows like Dynasty and Dallas.
“I have to warn you about my grandfather,” he said, opening the passenger door of his Porsche for her. “He’s something of a curmudgeon. I don’t know if he’ll be home tonight or not. I told him I was having company. But, knowing him, he probably forgot or doesn’t care.”
“Your grandfather lives with you?”
“He’s too old to take care of himself, so I had him move in with me. It’s a large house, and I have plenty of room.”
“It’s sweet that you want to take care of him yourself,” she said.
“It’s not like he’s any trouble. He still has all of his faculties, and he’s sharp as a whip. He’s just old — real old.”
When they got there, it turned out that Damon was right in predicting that his grandfather would be there. When they came in the front door, they were greeted with a sour expression.
“Hi,” Damon said, pretending to be pleasantly surprised. “I didn’t know you were going to be here. I thought you were going to have Bascomb drive you into town.”
His grandfather only grunted and turned to walk up the stairs, saying over his shoulder, “I’m going up to my room. You go ahead and do whatever it is you’re going to do. And clean up after yourself this time.”
“What did he mean by that?” Anna said, startled.
“Who knows? See what I told you about him? Don’t worry. His bark is much worse than his bite. When he gets to know you, he’ll be more sociable.”
The cook, whom Damon said had left for the night, had left dinner warming in the oven for them. Anna found it odd that an estate like his wouldn’t have live-in servants. He had her sit in the dining room while he brought it out. While she waited, she eyed her surroundings. How could a man like Damon, with such a kind and gentle disposition, live in such a place as this?
Once Damon sat down to dinner, her anxiety left her. This date went as well as their first. Damon was everything she had ever wanted in a man and much more. Still, she couldn’t understand why he would be interested in her. Men like him weren’t normally drawn to women they saw waiting tables. If he had just wanted her for sex, he could have dumped her when she didn’t put out on the first date. He seemed to be truly interested in her, and he proved himself a perfect gentleman through his treatment of her.
They began to see each other more and more frequently. She began to think of Damon as someone she could spend her life with. Any apprehensions she might have felt about entering a relationship with him had been completely forgotten. She trusted him completely and knew he would never want to see her hurt.